One of the best definitions of what a writer does is to extract narrative from random events. Okay, I guess that applies mostly to non-fiction writers.
Say you set out to write the biography of one of the English fighters in the peninsula during the Napoleonic invasions. You’ll find there’s not one narrative but at least four or five. And I don’t mean just that this guy looks completely different in his auto-biography, his mentions in his superiors’ biographies, or his friends memories of their parties. It goes far beyond that.
You could extract the moments of his soujourn in the peninsula to craft a “homeland and heroism” story, by picking all the highs and moments of valor, and how he wanted to rout Napoleon for England and glory. It would be a true account, as he really was a patriotic young man who wanted to serve.
Or if you had an anti-war bend, you could choose every one of the incidents in which he saw what we call “the horror of war” and show him becoming jaded and depressed. Look, even if he in general was suited to a military career and thought the cause just, he’d have moments of discouragement. Everyone does, and war really is a horrible business. Also if he joined at 17 or so, as many did, he couldn’t’ help but become at least somewhat jaded. By showing/lending prominence to this, an anti-war writer will craft the narrative no one should serve.
Or you could string together all the times he got drunk and went rabbit hunting, and had a contretemps with a local woman of uneasy virtue, and craft a tragi-comic narrative.
Well, it’s not just in books, you know? And not just writers. Life is chaotic. It has been said that the human brain is a machine for extracting meaning from chaos.
Hell, some people think that we — our minds — create time as a sequence, and that it has no existence outside our heads. (I have issues with this. Though it might be true, there where physics becomes theology.)
Just like the young officer in the Napoleonic wars, your life, your every day has many meanings, and you can pick and choose to craft a narrative. In fact, you do, instinctively.
This is where it’s important to write and craft stories. Humans are social apes. That means, to quote my grandmother “we don’t make ourselves.” Okay, I think she meant something more religious. But she was right in a more mundane sense, too.
Humans often aren’t even aware of crafting their narrative, or shaping their view of the world. Heck, most of us writers aren’t either. Not in our real, actual, personal life. Instead we fasten onto stories which are complete and coherent narratives, as a way to figure out who we are, where we are and where we are going, and to try to plot our path to a happy future.
Jane Austen with her incredibly practical view of marriage did more to reconcile me to physical existence and the realities of life than any number of “feminist” writers.
And that’s part of the problem too. When some stories — say the fairy tales with the happy ever after save when they threw the furniture at each other endings — are condemned by damnatio memory and people are told they can no longer use them to shape themselves, you craft anti-narratives. And these never have a happy ending.
I understand idiots — really — are complaining about Incredibles 2 and saying that Mrs. Incredible should divorce her husband. That’s the anti-narrative at work. The women don’t need men, the no woman is totally happy in marriage.
Now I’m not going to say women should only or primarily look for happiness in marriage. And I don’t think you should look for a perfect prince/princess, someone who will make you happy without questions. If you’re going to dip into legends and fairytales, go for the older more realistic ones, not Disney. The woman still had to do something brave, to go exploring, to perform tasks, before she was ready to be married. And married couples sometimes threw furniture at each other…
I’m saying be aware of the narrative in your head and how it’s influencing you. Because it’s possible to be trapped in a narrative that not only doesn’t suit you, but makes you miserable.
I’ve seen women rant and rave about how happy they are since the divorce, when it’s obvious they’re telling everyone this, and destroying any and all possible chance of happiness. I’ve seen men tell me how much they love their job and they don’t have time for family or friends, and yet their eyes are miserable.
They’re trapped in narratives where what they sold themselves as happiness and joy isn’t, but they can’t find their way out because they bought their own narrative, and can’t see it’s killing them.
In the same way, if men buy into the tales that men are inherently violent/war like/awful while women are perfect, they go through life with a huge chip on their shoulder, being passive aggressive, alternating grovelling with posturing. It’s not great for women to believe that either, btw, because no human being is perfect, and while women are far less likely to bash your skull in, they’re far more likely to poison your chocolate.
More importantly, if you believe the lies you were told in school, about the overpopulated world, depleted resources, everyone is a killer ape and a horrible person, there is no joy or glory anywhere, and “nothing to live or die for”, you’re going to live in a dark world with no future and no hope. And it isn’t even true.
I don’t know if there were humans before story. Maybe at the beginning there were tiny, tiny stories: “Gorg wans to be like Ogg and be leader of band.” Or “If Mog makes basket and catches fish Gorg will notice her, and they’ll have many babies.”
What I do know is that anything, even at the level of semi-competent tribal existence has a story.
Those sagas told over millennia provided role models. Are you Odysseus the quick, always with a stratagem? Faithful Penelope? Circe who lures men and has the power of making them animals? Are you Telemachus searching for his dad?
There were roles in those stories, things that went to the back of the brain and gave people ways to react to things that would otherwise destroy them, and ways of behaving that were if no constructive congruent with their society and the lives they could live.
Beware of stories. Beware of those that can trap you and suck you dry, like a spider catching an insect in a web.
If you can, pick a narrative with a future, one that allows you to build and be happy. In my experience the happiest people have something to live for: a spouse, a lover, a child, a garden, a house, a cause, an institution. (Just make sure the cause is not one that promotes misery.) Humans were built to work. To build. To expand. To create.
Make yourself a narrative that allows for that. And then build and live and, yes, if you can, write stories of building and living, so that others might live and build.